Saving Hanalei Town

Evidence that community action works

The author is former editor in chief of this newspaper.

In the 2011 movie The Descendants, starring George Clooney, there are several scenes shot on a beautiful crescent-shaped beach, behind which a range of misty mountains looms.

This is Hanalei beach, on the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Nearby is the quaintly historic town of Hanalei, home to about 500 people and a popular tourist destination for its many shops and restaurants, not to mention its beautiful bay.

In one of the movie’s beach scenes, a huge hotel is visible on a bluff overlooking the bay at its eastern end. This is the St. Regis, and it’s located in Princeville, a planned community of town houses, condos and time shares on the other side of the Hanalei River, which empties into the bay just below the St. Regis.

The contrast between Princeville and Hanalei couldn’t be starker, as I discovered last summer when my family vacationed there. Our condo was pleasant and its complex was neatly manicured, with flowers everywhere, but its Hawaiian soul had been trimmed right out of it. We could just as well have been in San Diego or Miami Beach.

Fortunately, Hanalei Town was just across the river, only 10 minutes away, and it more than made up for Princeville’s sterility. Greenery and flowers proliferated unchecked, housing—none of it new—ranged from luxurious to funky, and there wasn’t a time share or condo in sight. It felt like the real Hawaii.

Curious to know how Hanalei escaped the kind of development that had created Princeville, I did some research. Turns out that at one time zoning allowed condos and such in Hanalei, but before any could be built, town residents cleverly petitioned to have their access road declared a scenic highway. The petition was successful, which meant that the one-lane bridge over the Hanalei River could not be torn down, which in turn meant large construction equipment was effectively barred from entering Hanalei.

It was a reminder that citizen action is a powerful tool for community betterment and protection, no matter where one lives.